Controversial parking charges for blue badge holders are to be introduced at St Peter's Hospital after the chief executive blamed the financial pressures the trust was facing.

Board directors at the Ashford and St Peter's Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which encompasses St Peter's Hospital in Chertsey, decided to introduce the charges as part of a review of their travel and car parking policy.

An 'affordability criteria' - which has not been specified - will be implemented to assess which motorists will be eligible for free parking. 

Chief executive Suzanne Rankin made the announcement on Friday, adding that the decision 'was not taken lightly'.

Ms Rankin added that directors had faced opposition from the hospital trust's Disability Group - comprising of patients and representatives from disability groups - who "didn't agree with the decision".

A minimum parking charge for two hours has also been hiked from £3.20 to £3.50 as part of the move.

Ms Rankin said: “Introducing these charges is not a decision that has been taken lightly and is one of a number of measures we are taking to maintain and protect patient care by raising some additional income. 

“While the board considered the introduction of charging two and a half years ago, and chose not to do so at that time, I want to be completely honest about the reasons we felt we had to put this back onto the table. 

“Unfortunately, the financial climate we now find ourselves in has become significantly more challenging and increasing our parking charges is just one of a number of measures we are introducing across our hospitals to support our savings plans and ensure that our central funding is focused on the delivery of patient care.”

A hospital trust spokesman stressed that any patient or visitor who is entitled to have their parking costs reimbursed will continue to receive free parking - along with concessions for those visiting the hospital frequently, such as cancer patients or parents visiting young babies in intensive care.

Medical director Dr David Fluck said: “Parking charges at NHS hospitals is always a contentious issue.  And while we know everyone won’t agree with this decision, we feel it’s critical we do everything we can in this climate of constrained public finances and growing demand to protect our clinical services. 

“Aiming for equity and fairness towards all patients and visitors has always been an important consideration for the Board and has been an important driver behind this decision.  

“Charging will now be based on affordability rather than on eligibility for a blue badge and we want to make sure it’s as easy as possible for any patient or visitor entitled to free parking to have their costs reimbursed in a smooth and timely way. 

“We hope this will reflect a ‘fairness to all’ approach which supports those in most financial need whoever they are and whatever their capabilities.”

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Graham Footer, chief exectutive of Disabled Motoring UK, a charity offering mobility information services, said the group was seeing an increase in the amount of NHS Trusts introducing charges for blue badge holders.

He said: “DMUK believes that parking for blue badge holders should be free. This is because many disabled people do not have the same transport options as other non-disabled people; for example not all public transport is accessible - especially outside the big cities - and therefore their choices are more limited.

“Where charging has been introduced, it should be at a concessionary rate and within reason.

“DMUK believes that there should be a national policy for car parking charges across all NHS locations in the UK and the pricing standardised.

“At present it can be very confusing for blue badge holders whether they have to pay or not and whether they qualify for concessions or not, depending on the NHS car park they are visiting.”

The implementation of charges are being delayed until the end of the review - the date for which has not yet been set.